What is Society?

by Benjamin Studebaker

In political theory, there is some disagreement about what precisely society is. Liberal theorists believe that society is just an amalgamation of individual interests. Libertarians often argue that there is no society at all, that the individual interests are all there are. Both views contrast with the collectivist view, that there are irreducible social goods that cannot be located in individuals at all, because these goods require a society to exist in the first place. Today I’d like to weigh in on the topic by arguing that there are indeed goods that typically require society, but that this nonetheless does not make them irreducible. Society is more than the sum of various individual interests, but it is not separate from its component people either. Let’s dive in.

When we look at the world from an individual perspective, we see that we have a variety of interests. For instance, it is in the interest of an individual to be financially healthy. When all individuals are financially healthy, the result is that the indicators we use to measure the financial health of society as a whole (GDP, unemployment, etc.) are also healthy. For this reason, many on the right presume that economic health directly reflects whether or not individuals are able to successfully pursue their financial interests. Often it is believed to varying degrees that government policies that restrict this economic freedom necessarily prevent individuals from pursuing their interests and correspondingly weaken the social financial statistics.

This line of thinking presumes that if we want to improve the financial health of the individual and the financial health of the state, we ought to do more or less the same things. It implies that the social interest is an amalgamation. However, this view very swiftly becomes problematic under certain economic conditions. Consider for instance the global financial crisis, in which most private individuals all of the sudden found themselves financially very unhealthy. Their response was to deleverage, to attempt to reduce expenditure so as to reduce the size of their debts. This was perfectly rational at the individual level, but when many people reduce spending across society, the effect is to reduce economic activity, resulting in a reduction in GDP and a rise in unemployment. In a society, your spending is my income and my spending is your income. So in an effort to do what is in our best interest individually, we harm not only each other, but eventually ourselves.

It is inevitable that individuals fall into these destructive behaviors because of the limitations on their perspective. If I’m $60,000 in debt and I have creditors calling me every day, my only reasonable response is to try to pay down those debts if I am able to do so. If I were to try to keep spending money so as to prop up the economy and hope in vain that enough of that money would come back around to me such that I would be able to pay down my debts later, I’d be pretty silly. If I were to ask for a bank loan and told the bank that this was my plan, they’d laugh at me.

However, the state, as the embodiment of society, is fundamentally different. Because it possesses the collective power of all citizens, it is able to act directly in the interest of all citizens. No citizen can intervene to end a depression, or provide for national defense, or universal health care, or what have you, but the state can. Not only can the state provide these goods, it can make them its priority.

A citizen who opens a private school, for instance, may be contributing to the collective good of education, but this person must subordinate that social interest to individual concerns. The school must provide a living for those who own and operate it, or, at the very least, cover its own operating costs. Without a state, this makes it inevitable that the school will charge tuition, and that those will money will have an opportunity advantage over those that don’t. Private health care presents roughly the same scenario. Only the state can provide for these goods without having to make those various institutions independently financially viable. The state can collect the resources it uses to provide for education or health through a tax system, altering the distribution of cost burdens so as to minimize the pain of having to provide for the services. Even private insurance companies cannot manage to distribute burdens with the efficacy of the state, as evidenced by the perennially lower costs of state insurance programs relative to the private system.

All of these goods are still very much reducible–GDP, full employment, defense, education, health care, all of these things are measured across society as a whole, but are still beneficial to its individual members. While it’s true that educating a person may be of more benefit to the rest of us than it is to that person individually, these other beneficiaries are themselves individual citizens. Even if the good is indirect, it eventually is good for someone. These goods are not social abstractions.

Proponents of the notion that there are irreducible social goods often make the case for what they call “background conditions”. Take for instance our language and culture. These things are not constructed by individuals. Much of our language and culture predates our own existence, and their genesis can be argued to be the product of social interaction, not individuals in and of themselves. It’s not as if individual cavemen invented words. Words arose from the need to communicate with other cavemen, and they only have meaning to the extent that other cave men understand them. The same can be said for widespread cultural beliefs of all kinds. We do not have an attachment to free speech because it occurred to one of us individually that it was a good idea, but because of a structural evolutionary process whereby different people interacted with each other and, in combination with our genetic natures, mutually caused one another to behave as they do. There’s no agency there.

The argument leads us into determinism–since individuals do not self-generate their own natures and behaviors, it seems silly to claim that individuals themselves generate goods. I find that notion persuasive, but I do not think it effectively attacks the contention that there are no irreducible goods. It is one thing to say that individuals do not act alone or in a vacuum, it is another thing entirely to say that individuals do not benefit from actions they can only take collectively. It’s true that if you’re sad and I say comforting things to you, the words I’m saying can only be said and understood because we live in this particular society, that those words are socially generated, that I didn’t invent them and can’t take credit for them. Nonetheless, if, as a result of all of that, you are no longer sad, then you have individually benefited from that system. Language, culture, and other similar social constructions are good or bad only insofar as people benefit from them or are harmed by them.

In order to show that irreducible social goods exist, one would have to demonstrate the existence of something that is good but nonetheless does not benefit any individual. I believe that is a contradiction in terms–good things are by definition things that benefit individuals. It is certainly the case that many of those things can only be generated by an extensive, complex social system headed by a state, and for that reason I am a huge fan of the state and one of its biggest defenders. I’ll even go so far as to say that the overwhelming majority of good things in this world require the state. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to speak of a social interest that contradicts or otherwise fails to track the interests of the people who make it up on a collective level. Individual citizens many experience disharmony with the social interest, but the social interest must always be defined by what is of the greatest benefit (and the least harm) to the members of our society taken collectively. There is a social interest in this sense, and it is extremely important, but it must always remain grounded, it must always be an interest that constantly recalibrates to best suit the population it serves. We ought to be statists in the sense that we ought to care very much for this version of the social interest and institute strong state institutions to protect and advance that interest, but we must nonetheless refrain from elevating the state to quasi-religious status.